Even at their deepest position, Pistons wouldn’t pass on a player they deem best available
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Tom Owens was three weeks from his 32nd birthday and coming off of his 10th season in the NBA when the Portland Trail Blazers traded him to the Indiana Pacers in June 1981 for a first-round pick three years down the road.
Nobody put protections on picks back then, which was four years before the NBA instituted the draft lottery. When it came time to convey that first-round pick to Portland for a loaded 1984 draft, the Pacers were coming off of a 28-54 season and Owens had been retired for a year after finishing his career by averaging 4.2 points in 15 minutes a game – for the Pistons.
That meant the first-rounder Indiana owed the Trail Blazers was the second overall. In Portland, they dreamed that pick would launch a 50-win team to true contender status in an era dominated by Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Houston held the No. 1 pick and everyone knew it would be used on University of Houston center Akeem Olajuwon; he wouldn’t correct his name back to its original “Hakeem” until 1991.
The Blazers were loaded at shooting guard. Jim Paxson – older brother of John, who would go on to become a key member of the ’90s Chicago Bulls dynasty and later a Bulls executive – was 26 and led the 1983-84 Blazers in scoring at 21.3. And Portland felt great about its rookie, taken 14th a year earlier in a less than stellar draft, who backed up Paxson: future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.
You know the rest of the story. Portland, feeling set at shooting guard but hoping to bolster its frontcourt, took Sam Bowie with the No. 2 pick, allowing Michael Jordan to go third to Chicago. The lesson: Take the best player available no matter what your roster looks like at the time.
On Thursday we made the case that the Pistons have a critical need for long-term help at point guard with only Derrick Rose under contract at the position for the 2020-21 season. Today we make the case for taking a player at any of the other four positions, starting with the spot on the roster that dissuaded Portland from taking Jordan 36 years ago.
SHOOTING GUARD – It’s the deepest position on the Pistons roster by a long shot with Luke Kennard, Svi Mykhailiuk, Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas all natural fits at that position, though Kennard and Mykhailiuk can just as easily fit at small forward and Brown and Thomas can guard all three perimeter positions.
And yet if the Pistons were to win the lottery and if they agree with the loose consensus that Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards is the No. 1 prospect – and those are two very big ifs – then, absolutely, Edwards should be their guy. He’s a physical specimen who has the potential to develop into a legitimate No. 1 scoring option. If the Pistons believe he can become that guy, then it’s an easy call to take him and let the roster sort itself out.
CENTER – After seven straight years of going into the off-season penciling Andre Drummond in for 30-plus minutes a night, the Pistons need to think about center as a position of need – and also of possibility. Though Drummond was emphatically the dominant rebounder of his generation, his skill set at the offensive end dictated to a large extent the system the Pistons could employ.
The Pistons will have certain advantages at their disposal in retaining Christian Wood in free agency, but Wood’s 3-point range and lateral mobility enable him to fit at power forward as easily as center and allows the Pistons to draft at either spot comfortably.
There are two centers considered top-10 picks and some support for Memphis freshman James Wiseman – limited to three games around an NCAA investigation into his eligibility – as the No. 1 prospect. Wiseman’s length and shooting potential stamps him as a prototypical modern NBA big man and pairing him with Wood would give the Pistons a dynamic 1-2 athletic punch up front.
The second center prospect in range of the upper half of the lottery is Southern Cal’s Onyeka Okongwu. He’d be more toward the Drummond end of the spectrum – an athletic shot-blocking type who would be more of a screening, rim-running threat than a perimeter option.
SMALL FORWARD – When Ed Stefanski drafted Sekou Doumbouya last season, he said the Pistons needed an athletic wing with that size – and, he added, preferably more than one. If Doumbouya had a twin and the Pistons felt he was the top prospect at their turn, Doumbouya’s presence on the roster wouldn’t keep the Pistons from adding another who fits his profile.
There are two top-10 small forwards by most accounts and they’re relative opposites: Israel’s 6-foot-9 Deni Avdija and 6-foot-6 Auburn freshman Isaac Okoro. Avdija’s strength is as a playmaking, scoring wing with great size; Okoro’s calling card is physicality, athleticism and elite defense with offense pretty much a projection at this point.
It would be easy to see Casey falling head over heels for Okoro, who draws raves for his toughness and character, but also for Avdija given his playmaking potential and Casey’s fondness for having attacking possibilities at three or four positions.
POWER FORWARD – If the Pistons were to be influenced at all by roster considerations, it would come at power forward. It might ultimately prove Doumbouya’s best position at 6-foot-9 with athleticism and, don’t forget, Blake Griffin has two seasons remaining on his contract.
The only power forward considered a likely top 10 pick is Dayton’s Obi Toppin, winner of the major college player of the year awards. He’s also very likely the player most ready to contribute immediately given his age (22) and experience after three years in college. His 3-point range and explosiveness around the rim make him as close to a sure thing as it gets in this draft even if there are questions about his ceiling.
If Griffin is healthy to start next season – and following minor knee surgery, a debridement, in January, Griffin will be ready to embark on a full off-season conditioning program when circumstances permit – then he’ll dominate minutes at power forward. But there’s enough room for Griffin, Doumbouya and Toppin to all contribute given Casey’s ability to adapt and willingness to structure a system to get his best players on the court regardless of positional concern.
Taking the best player available is the guiding principle of pretty much every well-run NBA franchise, but there are always forces in play that stretch the boundaries of that creed. It’s going to get about as pure an application as it ever gets with the Pistons this time around.